We’ve Caught the Taliban Chief! Can We Go Home Now?


How the US handles the Pakistani arrest of the top Afghan Taliban military commander, and the aftermath of the US military assault in Marjah, may have a decisive impact on whether we get to withdraw our troops from Afghanistan soon, or in the far-off future. Some analysts – like Gareth Porter – think the key motivation of the present US military escalation is political in the bad sense: in order to negotiate with the Afghan Taliban, first the US has to “show that nobody pushes us around,” just as President Bush had to escalate militarily in Iraq before he could cut deals with the Sunni Awakening and the Mahdi Army militia. It’s a grim world in which the most powerful country kills people to look tough; but right now, the way to minimize human suffering is for the US to take advantage of recent “successes” to take a high road towards going home.

The arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar could cut two ways, The New York Times notes. While it’s obviously a psychological blow, at the least, against the Afghan Taliban, it could complicate efforts to reach a peace deal:

The Pakistani move could come at the expense of the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai and complicate reconciliation efforts his government has begun. An American intelligence official in Europe conceded as much, while also acknowledging Mullah Baradar’s key role in the reconciliation process. “I know that our people had been in touch with people around him and were negotiating with him,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue. “So it doesn’t make sense why we bite the hand that is feeding us,” the official added. “And now the Taliban will have no reason to negotiate with us; they will not believe anything we will offer or say.”

But the deed is done. The US government has different parts, and they don’t always sing from the same hymnal; that anyone knows who reads the press; other governments are the same way. By handling this arrest well, the US could still make it a turning point towards reconciliation in Afghanistan.

  • First, the US must guarantee that Mullah Baradar is not mistreated in detention. If folks in the Afghan Taliban find out that Mullah Baradar has been mistreated – and you can be sure that they would find out – it would be a huge setback to political efforts to end the war.
  • Second, the political people in the US government – and here I mean the word in its best sense, the people devoted to solving problems through politics, as opposed to the people focused on killing people, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and blowing things up – must demand access to Mullah Baradar for political dialogue. What Baradar knows about the politics of the Afghan Taliban is more important than what he knows about its logistics. Bandar has been regarded as the person in the Afghan Taliban leadership most amenable to negotiations; he was the person anyone went to when they needed to negotiate anything with the Afghan Taliban. So, more than any person alive, he has insight on how to negotiate a resolution of the conflict.

The idea that a prisoner could play a key role in ending or reducing violent conflict might seem counterintuitive, but there are plenty of recent precedents, including in Northern Ireland, Israel-Palestine and Turkish Kurdistan.

For Mullah Baradar to play such a role will require a credible political process to address the issues feeding Afghanistan’s longstanding civil war. That would include a willingness by the United States to talk about ending night raids and arbitrary detentions, freeing prisoners, a timetable for withdrawal of foreign military forces, reform of the Afghan constitution, and integration of disaffected Pashtun communities into the political process, not only as individuals, but also as groups.

They taught us in school that President Lincoln delayed issuing the Emancipation Proclamation until he had a military victory that he could do it in the wake of, so he would not look weak. Let Baradar’s capture provide that victory for Obama. Let’s not carry on another 18 months of killing to look tough; let the past demonstrations of force suffice. Let Obama call now for a political process to end the war in Afghanistan, so Afghans can be freed from the curse of war, and so our troops can come home.